Friday, 15 November 2013

The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe

No regeneration, no new companion, no hints or connections (apart from those final few minutes); this Christmas special sits more remotely than ever from the rest of the series. The Doctor wonders further and further from that sci-fi label and the result is the purest fantasy yet. Watched in November, as part of the full run, the difference is noticeable to say the least - but, taken after Christmas dinner, with pudding and many sherries fighting for the last few cubic centimetres of space in one's stomach, this is a completely acceptable way to pass an hour.

The storybook aesthetic of the Moffat-era is turned up to eleven here as Doctor Who engages in a wholesale plunder of C.S.Lewis's Narnia books. War-time children, a mysterious house in the country, a naughty younger brother sneaking off into a strange other world and discovering a snow-covered forest? It's hardly subtle, is it? But then Lewis's works were part of the inspiration for the show itself, and what is the TARDIS if not that magical wardrobe with roaming privileges?

Doctor Who barely intrudes at all. There's an alien ship to destroy before the titles, some tree-harvesters from Androzani Major make a brief appearance, a glimpse of the vortex and then a last minute coda with the Ponds that begins to move us towards Series Seven. But that's it. The rest of it is magic and Christmas and the spirits of the forest. I don't mind at all. This is what the Christmas Specials are for, isn't it? Or at least, it's fine that this is what one in seven of them is like.

The trees are especially festive, with their star-like lights and mystic life-force. They make for some wonderful images and as well as echoing the modern LED-riddled domestic variety, they evoke the ancient pre-Christian forests and their ever-green magic - the sort of thing that used to pass for Christmas in northern Europe before St Boniface set to work.

The most interesting thing here however is Madge Arwell: an ordinary mum and a kindly woman whose stereotypical inability to do things like drive a car without crashing is a set-up designed to wrong-foot us before she shows us what she's actually made of.

First of all, there's the quiet, invisible strength of a woman holding together a family in the most difficult of times. It's easy, though - too easy - to take such impossible work for granted and her breakdown in front of the tree harvesters is a timely reminder of the burden she carries. Except, ha ha, it is actually a clever trick. Such is her maternal determination to find her children, she is able and willing to threaten them with her gun and even - Bill Bailey's eyes tell the truth of it - use it if necessary. Madge is revealed to us in that moment, if we hadn't understood her already: a formidable woman who will do whatever it takes, like commandeering a space-tank-tripod machine thing and steering it across the surface of an alien world, for example. Once inside the tower and reunited with her children, the alien trees' purpose is made clear. They dismiss the weak male Doctor; they need Madge, need her strength to save them.

There's a very real danger these days of upsetting someone when a man attempts to say something about the female condition, especially Moffat, perhaps, who has been accused of various sexist crimes in his previous Doctor Who stories. There are people who will worry that this is a patronising and limiting view of female power, and that Madge is reduced to a mere vessel for someone else's life force. Well, possibly. Having watched my wife give birth twice and been humbled, astonished and utterly redundant on each occasion, I'm confident that this is a glorification of an awesome power that men can only observe and never achieve themselves. And besides, it harks back to another old Christmas story, doesn't it?


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